The US Supreme Court indicated Tuesday it will not offer much help to frequent flyers who want to sue when airlines revoke their miles or their memberships.
The justices heard the case of a rabbi who was stripped of his top-level "platinum elite" status in Northwest's WorldPerks program because the airline said he complained too much.
Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg said Northwest, since absorbed by Delta Air Lines Inc., did not act in good faith when it cut him off. The airline says the federal deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 rules out most lawsuits like the one filed by Ginsberg.
Most justices signaled they think that ruling for Ginsberg could give rise to state-by-state rules that the deregulation law was intended to prevent.
Justice Stephen Breyer said Ginsberg's complaint also could apply to airline ticket prices, which are supposed to be set through competition among airlines.
"It sounds to me like I go in to, you know, get a ticket, my reasonable expectation is they're not going to charge me what they're going to charge, you know. I mean, it's unbelievable," Breyer said. Under Ginsberg's view of the case, Breyer said he could sue over the prices.
"That might be a great idea, but I don't think that's the idea behind this act," he said.
Ginsberg said in court papers that he and his wife flew almost exclusively on Northwest, logging roughly 75 flights a year to travel across the US and abroad to give lectures and take part in conferences on education and administration.
He said he flew on Northwest even when other airlines offered comparable or better flights and in 2005, reached the highest level of the WorldPerks program.
Northwest cut him off in 2008, shortly after Northwest and Delta agreed to merge. Ginsberg said the move was a cost-cutting measure designed to get rid of the high-mileage customers.
Northwest says Ginsberg complained 24 times in a 7-month period, including nine instances of luggage that turned up late on airport baggage carousels. Northwest said that before it took action, it awarded Ginsberg $1,925 in travel credit vouchers, 78,500 bonus miles, a voucher for his son and $491 in cash reimbursements.
The airline pointed to a provision of the mileage program's terms that gives Northwest the right to cancel members' accounts for abuse.
A decision is expected by late June.